- Words Isabelle Cassidy
The return of the VS Fashion Show was announced last week alongside a commitment to righting past wrongs. But is the re-brand too little too late?
“First there was the miracle, then came angels”.
With the voiceover of a noughties Victoria’s Secret advert ringing in our ears, in 2023 you’d have to be living under a culture-void rock to be unaware of one of the biggest fashion brands of the twenty-first century.
To some, it’s a paragon of female empowerment led by some of the biggest supermodels of the last few decades – to others, an out-of-touch symbol of unattainable body standards drenched in sordid controversy. This week it was announced that the VS Fashion Show would be returning after a four-year break. With the likes of Lizzo publicly speaking out against the re-brand on the grounds of ‘too little too late’, we investigate what’s making people so angry.
In its first form, Victoria’s Secret was founded as a catalogue to save a man’s embarrassment of gifting lingerie. American businessman Les Wexner took over from the 1977 original founders, and the character of ‘Victoria’ was invented as a classy British brand ambassador. From there, the careful cultivation of the image of Victoria’s Secret – that would continue for the next 40 years – had begun.
This is a win for inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake— FOLLOW @YITTY (@lizzo) March 5, 2023
But if brands start doing this only because they’ve received backlash then what happens when the ‘trends’ change again?
Do the CEOs of these companies value true inclusivity? Or do they just value money? https://t.co/ykmcUTLayQ
For most, our exposure to VS has been through the circus of their annual catwalks, fronted by the Bella Hadid’s and Kendall Jenner’s of the modelling world. Known for their elaborate staging and international performers, they gained momentum in the late 1990s, with the shows growing in size and scale every year. What never got bigger however – was the scope of their model choice. VS marketing remained firmly built around the image of a singular body-type. If you were receiving a call-back from an ‘Angel’ casting, according to research, you were most likely to be 5’10” and a size 6.
Despite their huge success, as the 2010s rolled on, culture shifted away from the idea of women needing to aspire to a singular body type. Reactionary campaigns cast models of more sizes, including the viral #ImNoAngel shoot featuring a young Ashley Graham. As brands like Aerie shifted their marketing in line with a slowly more inclusive turning-tide, the casting of the VS shows and campaigns remained unchanged.
In recent years, the success of marketing to a range of body-types is no more evident than in the launch of Savage X Fenty in 2018. Based around a model of inclusive and diverse womanhood, models like Hadid spoke of their empowerment when walking in the shows, citing it as the first time they’d felt ‘truly empowered’ walking in lingerie. Despite the hits, VS Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek stuck to his guns during an interview with Vogue in the same year, describing how VS was promoting a ‘fantasy’. For Razek, this fantasy could not include diversity, as he specifically spoke against the possibility of ever casting a transgender model.
In 2019, it may not be surprising to hear, the show was cancelled, and Razek eventually resigned. If you’re interested in the controversies around the brand, HBO’s documentary series Angels and Demons, released last July, offers all the often-gruesome details. Alongside a more-than-questionable ethos on sizing, the doc cites CEO Wexner’s close links to Jeffrey Epstein, Epstein’s attendance at the first-ever VS Fashion Show and continued association with the brand.
It was in 2021 when Victoria’s Secret attempted the first of what NY Times described as “the most extreme brand turnaround in recent memory”, hiring a gender equality campaigner; a freestyle skier; model and inclusivity advocate Paloma Elsesser, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas to front a campaign. It set the scene for the recent reintroduction of the Fashion Show, as the brand finally started to dip their toe into what others had been doing for years.
Two years later, in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Victoria’s Secret this month announced the return of their new, revitalised catwalk show, explaining it will “reinforce [their] commitment to championing women’s voices and their unique perspectives”. Perhaps not received as planned, although a move to inclusivity is clearly positive, the general reaction is that this is too little too late. VS may be casting the models that Razek once shunned, but there is a strong sense that this decision is rooted in economic necessity. If you could place your pounds with the likes of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, or Lizzo’s YITTY, many will certainly hesitate at choosing a company so deeply rooted in problematic branding.
With the new show due at the end of the year, we’ll wrap up with Lizzo’s words. “This is a win for inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake,” she wrote on Twitter. “But if brands start doing this only because they’ve received backlash, then what happens when the ‘trends’ change again? Do the CEOs of these companies value true inclusivity? Or do they just value money?”